How Clinton Handles Her Candidacy's Historic Nature

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When the going has gotten tough during Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — gender politics have been a lifeline. Clinton's gender has helped her rally female votes and money. But Clinton hasn't talked too much about being a woman running for president.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Last night, campaigning in West Virginia, Hillary Clinton talked about womanhood. It was Mother's Day. And Mrs. Clinton quoted Eleanor Roosevelt as saying a woman is like a teabag; you never know how strong she is until she's in hot water.

The presidential candidate is in an uphill battle to win the Democratic nomination but remains the clear favorite among women. As NPR's David Greene reports though, the Clinton campaign has not always been comfortable with the historic nature of her candidacy.

DAVID GREENE: No one has ever doubted Hillary Clinton could make history. Her goal was to be the nation's first female president. What's striking is how little she talks about that. Back in the early days of the campaign in snowy Iowa, she'd throw in a passing reference like this.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democratic, New York): If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. And I'll tell you what. I feel really comfortable in the kitchen.

(Soundbite of cheers)

GREENE: Most of the time she focused on her credentials and experience. Yet something did happen in New Hampshire. Women began asking Clinton what it's like to be a woman running for president. How does she do it and isn't it hard. At one event, Clinton answered with tears in her eyes.

Senator CLINTON: This is very personal for me. It's not just political. It's not just public. I see what's happening and we have to reverse it.

GREENE: This was played and replayed on TV and a lot of women said they got a rare glimpse of Clinton's emotions. New Hampshire voter Christina Anderson said at the time it's why she voted for Clinton.

Ms. CHRISTINA ANDERSON (Clinton Supporter): What I saw is someone who really felt deeply about what they were doing and felt a strong sense of conviction, and I connected with that.

GREENE: Clinton's victory in New Hampshire kept her historic candidacy alive.

Senator CLINTON: I want especially to thank New Hampshire. Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GREENE: Some thought that moment would signal more emphasis on the historic nature of her candidacy, but her voice and her strategy never changed that much. Now and then she mentioned that she could make history, and there's her occasional joke.

Senator CLINTON: I think I should get some extra points, you know, because it takes me so much longer to get ready than the men.

GREENE: Women are the heart of the Hillary vote. In Pennsylvania, nearly six in ten Democratic voters were women. In Indiana, Clinton won by carrying the votes of women. The day after Indiana's primary last week, Clinton was in Washington to host a fundraising banquet, and her campaign did something rare - focusing the event entirely on women.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: "I'm Every Woman" was blaring as Clinton walked in. Women were standing up on chairs waving their dinner napkins.

Senator CLINTON: This is an overwhelming sight, to be here looking out at all of you.

GREENE: Clinton thanked women everywhere.

Senator CLINTON: When I was counted out in New Hampshire, it was the women of New Hampshire who came back and said, no, she's not finished yet. When I was counted out before Super Tuesday, it was women from California to Massachusetts who came and said, no, we're not finished yet.

GREENE: This was Clinton's moment to appreciate voters like Rebecca Himburger(ph), a voter who talked to me at a diner in Pittsburgh last month.

Ms. REBECCA HIMBURGER (Clinton Supporter): I want to see a woman in office. I want to see her - I want that to happen, because if it doesn't happen now, when will it happen? I don't see it happening if she doesn't - if not Hillary, then who?

GREENE: In Indiana last week, 77-year-old Dottie Mack said she'd written a song.

Ms. DOTTIE MACK (Clinton Supporter): I've been singing this for two months, because the only W we need in the White House is a woman. And this is a song for Hillary.

(Singing) We want a woman in the White House. We want Hillary. We want a woman in the White House, who'll work for you and me.

GREENE: Clinton may have made an early decision not to talk too much about being a woman running for president, but for many of her supporters being a woman running for president has been the most important thing all along.

David Greene, NPR News.

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